Adventure on the opera horizon: Preview of Franz von Suppé’s A Trip to Africa

Any great opera experience is, to some extent, a process of discovery. Whether I find myself reimagining a familiar piece thanks to incisive direction, noticing an aria afresh due to some exceptional singing, or quite simply getting my head around a completely new work at Tête à Tête or Grimeborn, it’s always what I learned (or realised) about that particular opera, that particular time, that makes a performance actually stay with me for years afterwards. While we all rightly treasure opera’s canonical jewels, the seasoned operagoer often relishes the chance to step off the beaten track and sample something entirely new: but often, that means something modern. And not all seasoned operagoers find it as easy to love an ambitious, modern, let-their-ears-bleed opera as their fondly cherished Verdi or Puccini favourite.

miradillo-copyright-181x300Cue our other favourite source of operatic variety: The Historical Discovery, or the Re-Found But Previously Long Lost Opera. This rescues dusty manuscripts, languishing traditionally in a forgotten corner of a private library, or even folded inside the pages of a completely unrelated book, to glow once more on the modern stage, often after laborious research and skilful musical restoration. Combining luck, Fate, serious academic endeavour and not a little determined vision (a.k.a. foolhardy courage), performances of long lost operas can, at best, give us a rare chance to discover a work at once glorious, approachable and new (to us – I give you Donizetti’s stunning Pia de’ Tolomei); or, at worst, demonstrate exactly why the piece fell out of favour (I give you Jommelli’s interminable La Didone). If you would like a chance to decide for yourself, I would point you to the upcoming UK premiere of Franz von Suppé’s operetta Die Afrikareise, on 3 December 2016 at the Maddermarket Theatre, Norwich (tickets here), where it will be performed in English as A Trip to Africa: hitting an English stage a mere 133 years after its first performance in Vienna in 1883, and just 94 years after its last most recent performance (back in 1922 in Parma). The score and libretto, telling a complicated yet comic story of various expat Italians all falling in love with the wrong people in and around Cairo, complete with sneezing potion, have been duly hiding in a dusty box in the basement of a library at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, although the handwritten manuscript was diligently digitised by university staff so that it could be submitted by email to its rescuer, Dario Salvi, one scanned page at a time. Salvi had tracked down Die Afrikareise while looking for Viennese scores for his Imperial Vienna Orchestra to play, tracing the existence of the whole opera from just one extant polka. Establishing the fact that the University of Wisconsin-Madison had the manuscript, Salvi’s subsequent restoration of the score has produced a book (available to purchase through Cambridge Scholars and Amazon) as well as the planned single UK premiere performance at the Maddermarket on 3 December.

titania-copyright-183x300Franz von Suppé was so prolific, it’s not surprising some of his operettas went astray: he is thought to have composed somewhere between thirty and fifty operettas, as well as 180 farces, ballets, and other stage works in a busy musical career which also saw him conduct, direct, and even take to the stage himself (singing Dulcamara in L’elisir d’amore at the Sopron theatre in 1842: Donizetti seems to have been a distant relation). He’s not entirely Viennese on paper, either: born to an Italian-Belgian father and a Viennese mother in 1819 in Spalato, Dalmatia (modern-day Split in Croatia), the composer was originally named Francesco Ezechiele Ermenegildo Cavaliere di Suppé-Demelli, but simplified and Germanised his name to Franz von Suppé when the family relocated to Vienna after the death of his father in 1835, when he was sixteen.  By 1881, he was granted the freedom of the city of Vienna, in recognition of his tireless work and significant contribution to the art form of Viennese operetta, his career spanning numerous theatres and countless productions. A Trip to Africa, then, is the mature work of an acknowledged master of the genre, performed by the only orchestra in the UK to specialise in Viennese music of the 19th century: chances are, it will be exceptional.

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